Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 21

Submission from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)


    —  The UK's science and engineering base is one of its strongest assets for innovation and future economic growth. —  The Government's ten-year investment framework from 2004-2014 supports UK science and innovation. A Large Facilities Capital Fund provides capital funding for the construction of large research facilities.—  Developing, building and operating large national and international research facilities for the UK requires a long-term outlook. Such facilities have lifetimes measured in decades and require skilled teams of scientists, engineers and technicians to design, build, operate and exploit them.

    —  Short-term funding variations through the Spending Review cycle can potentially damage the ability of STFC to effectively operate key scientific infrastructures. This in turn can weaken the return on these investments and adversely affect the confidence of the UK's international partners in collaborative endeavours.

    —  STFC recommends the consideration of policy models for through-life resourcing of large research facilities over the long term to ensure that best use is made of the capital investment and to ensure the maximum scientific, social and economic returns for the UK.


  1.  This submission to the IUSS enquiry "Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy" provides information to the Committee related to the unique research portfolio of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

2.  This submission is complementary to that submitted by RCUK on behalf of all research councils and which the STFC fully supports.

  3.  Within the research council family, the role of the STFC is to lead on the provision of large-scale research facilities. STFC facilities cover the full research base, from physical and biological science, to archaeology and fine arts. STFC facilities are used by researchers supported by all the research councils, for topics as diverse as probing sub-atomic world of particle physics, developing new medicines, designing new materials, and exploring the vastness of space and the Universe. STFC facilities also support broader constituencies, including industry directly, as well as scientific researchers from around the world.

  4.  As a result of sustained public investment over a number of years researchers in the UK now have access to some of the world's best scientific research facilities. Examples include:

    i. The Diamond Light Source, the largest ever single investment in scientific infrastructure on UK soil.

    ii. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the most powerful particle collider in the world built with substantial contributions from the UK

    iii. A second target station at the ISIS neutron source, opening to researchers in 2009, which will provide a substantial enhancement, optimised for soft matter, to an already world-leading facility

    iv. World-leading laser facilities, in particular at the Central Laser Facility based at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire

    v. Cutting-edge space research funded through the European Space Agency, international bi-lateral agreements and collaborations with national space agencies, including NASA

    vi. The world's best ground-based telescopes, for example the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile.

  5.  STFC has been designed to take full advantage of the synergies between and long term nature of these investments, integrating grant-funded HEI based studies with large scale international programmes and facilities. As stated by the Minister at its formation, "The aim of the new council will be to create a more integrated approach to large scientific research facilities, including in international negotiations for long-term projects involving several countries acting together; to obtain more value from the knowledge and technologies developed as a result of the new council's programmes; and to deliver both those goals using the two science and innovation campuses at Harwell and Daresbury as identifiable knowledge transfer centres that host UK-based large-scale international facilities."

  6.  One demonstrable positive benefit of the creation of STFC has been the increased influence of the UK in international and European scientific planning forums, such as the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI).


  7.  The UK's science and engineering base is one of its strongest assets for innovation and future economic growth. Alongside the 2004 Spending Review, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, announced a ten-year investment framework for UK science and innovation. The long-term strategy for supporting UK science saw the Government give its commitment to make the UK one of the most competitive locations in the world for science, research and development and innovation, and foster a climate in which talented individuals and enterprising companies can flourish.

8.  Providing cutting-edge facilities for the UK research base is an essential part of a long term strategy to retain and grow the UK's competitiveness in the global economy. In harsh economic times, the "business case" for investing in science and the wider research base is even more compelling. Continuing to invest in the research base, and even increasing investment, is vitally important. Only in this way can we position the nation to take full advantage of an economic recovery.

  9.  Many of our national and international facilities, like Diamond, ISIS and the LHC at CERN, have a lifetime measured in decades. Planning for Diamond, for example, began more than a decade ago, and its construction was agreed on the understanding it will have at least 28 years of operation.

  10.  Large research facilities require skilled scientists, engineers and technicians to operate and exploit them. Again, this is a long-term requirement and needs long-term commitment. It takes 13 years of formal education to produce a secondary school student capable of even undertaking an undergraduate science degree, before further years of effort to achieve post-graduate qualifications.

  11.  A unique aspect of large research facilities is their long-term nature and their development as a part of international collaborative programmes. They take many years to plan, develop and complete in part because they involve complex construction phases, but also because they require ongoing problem resolution throughout the delivery. Many are in effect, their own prototypes, for example, the Large Hadron Collider.

  12.  Research teams and capabilities often take many years to establish, so any sudden change of direction in terms of funding support can be both frustrating and damaging to UK science and its international reputation. With this in mind it is essential that Government policy regarding funding for scientific facilities should be phased over a time period consistent with the typical duration of projects and the lifetime of the infrastructure. We note that this need for a long-term perspective on funding was highlighted in the recent RCUK Review of UK Physics led by Professor Bill Wakeham.[56]

  13.  Taking this long term view for research requires courage, particularly in difficult financial times, but it is essential if the UK is to maintain and improve its position as a competitive knowledge- and skills-based economy.


  14.  The lead time in developing, building and operating large facilities is long, typically not less than 10 years to develop and build, with operational lifetimes of 30-40 years. STFC facility operations must be addressed from a long-term strategic viewpoint and sustained investment in their continued operation is needed for them to deliver their full potential over their projected lifetimes.

15.  80% of the STFC's budget is devoted to facility operations and development: international subscriptions account for half of this commitment and national facility operations and development programmes account for the other half. For particle physics and astronomy alone STFC spent £154.42 million in 2006-07 on international subscriptions.

  16.  By their nature, these annual spending commitments are long term and there is little practical flexibility in the short-term. Relatively small reductions in facility spending allocations in the short term tend to have a disproportionate impact on the scientific and ecomomic return on total investment. This is because a large percentage (typically 85%) of the cost of operating a facility is the fixed cost of ownership (staff costs and maintenance in a safe and operational state). The only costs that can effectively be reduced in the short term are the marginal costs related to the number of operating days, resulting in a disproportionately large reduction in the throughput of experiments.

  17.  Decisions to close facilities or withdraw from international agreements have significant consequences (eg political, reputational, skills availability) beyond the immediate area of science. There are long lead times in changing the status of, often international, agreements, or withdrawing from or closing facilities. Such decisions require close involvement of the Government of the day. Short-term funding variations, on the Spending Review cycle, can potentially damage STFC's ability to support key scientific infrastructure. Furthermore it can create uncertainty with international partners and potentially weakens the UK's position as a potential driver for new international facilities and programmes, including inward investment into the UK.

  18.  Because of the nature of its business, STFC has developed, and continues to refine, long-term strategies across the whole of its programme; each tailored to ensure that the UK is in a strong position to influence the international debate and maximise returns for the UK.

  19.  The STFC maintains a rolling 10-year plan which sets out financial requirements to deliver approved programmes, and financial projections for future planned programmes. As part of the process of developing this plan, a critical analysis has been carried out on cost drivers for the programme, to ensure that the financial projections are realistic. The 10-year planning process enables STFC to:

    i. capture and assess the resource implications of the future plans of each element of our programme, for both operations and development activity;

    ii. continuously track changes to plans and their status as they move through our approval and post-approval monitoring processes;

    iii. identify the expected lifetimes of projects and programmes and identify when programmes will "sunset", thereby allowing investment in new programmes;

    iv. provide a reliable basis for making future investment decisions against the current and projected financial landscapes.

A "Large Facilities Operational Fund"?

  20.  In recent years there has been significant new investment in the science base supported by the STFC, for example Diamond, ISIS Second Target Station, ESO, LHC, Aurora. Within the period covered by CSR07 and the next two spending reviews many of these will mature to the point where they could start to deliver optimum return on that investment. Operational funding must be commensurate to the capital investment for the UK to see the appropriate return on the investments.

21.  The UK takes a strategic view as to the best way to maintain access for researchers to large facilities and to manage the investment of public funds. The Research Councils publish a Large Facilities Roadmap to guide investment. The first version of the Large Facilities Roadmap was published in June 2001 and then updated in 2005 and 2008.

  22.  The Large Facilities Capital Fund (LFCF, administered by DIUS and typically £100 million per annum) was established to support Research Council investments in large research facilities with capital funding that could not be sensibly accommodated from within Research Council budgets or within spending review cycles. It concentrates on those facilities identified by the Research Councils as being of the highest strategic importance and which require significant investment for the Council concerned.

  23.  The LFCF provides a funding contribution to the capital costs of the construction of new facilities either nationally or internationally, or the expansion or enhancement of existing facilities. Examples of current projects at STFC supported through this route include Phase 2 and Phase 3 instruments at the ISIS Second Target Station and Phase 2 and Phase 3 instruments at Diamond Light Source.

  24.  Other funding is available in the UK for large facilities and infrastructure from Government Departments, Regional Development Agencies, Devolved Administrations, charities, the private sector, the European Commission, and other international bodies. Examples here include the 14% stake in Diamond Light Source Ltd by the Wellcome Trust, and the development of infrastructure for new businesses at the Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus by the North West Development Agency.

  25.  Our programme also contains modest provision for a number of new, high priority investment programmes to maintain the UK's lead in areas where it is already world leading; existing examples are HiPER, New Light Source, XFEL, ELT, SKA, and in the near future a Next Generation Neutron Source.

  26.  In addition to providing large national facilities, the UK's international subscriptions are undertaken by STFC on behalf of the nation. As well as providing access to world-leading facilities essential for the UK's scientific competitiveness, and in doing so representing important assets that need to be handled as a UK-wide resource and not as STFC programmes, they also underpin the UK's reputation as a credible scientific partner and open up avenues for working across national boundaries that are increasingly important.

  27.  Whilst the STFC's programme takes account of the timely phasing out of and withdrawal from certain programmes, the UK's ambitions are increasing as science and technology research becomes ever more central to economic competiveness. Furthermore the newer generation facilities are significantly more capable, and therefore more expensive to develop, build and operate than their predecessors. This is matched by a commensurate increase in scientific and economic impact.

  28.  STFC carries significant obligations for the careful management of these national interests. However, international subscriptions are affected by inflation, fluctuations in currency exchange rates and national GDP levels. These are beyond STFC's control and limit flexibility in financial planning with potentially serious impact to our domestic research programme.

  29.  The existence of an earmarked funding line for major science facilities (the "Large Facilities Capital Fund", LFCF) has provided a very successful mechanism for appropriately controlled and prioritised investments.

  30.  STFC proposes that it may be beneficial for Government policy to consider adopting a through-life resourcing mechanism, or a "Large Facilities Operating Fund", to match the LFCF facility, whereby the key strategic elements of the scientific research and broader exploitation of large facilities are assessed and funded via long-term plans.


  31.  Excellent science can only be delivered when working with, and benchmarked against, the best scientists in the world. In many circumstances, the UK's interests will be best served by participating in a facility overseas, for example, through international subscriptions or bilateral/multilateral arrangements with other countries to build facilities either abroad or in the UK. In this context, the UK needs to take a view on when and how to participate in major new international facilities, considering the potential for the UK to provide global direction and to disseminate UK excellence, attract the best researchers in to the country, as well as enhancing the international collaborative activities of UK researchers.

32.  The road map approach to large infrastructure planning pioneered by the United Kingdom has been widely commended and adopted by others. Provision of research facilities can be undertaken in three main ways:

    i. As a national UK facility;

    ii. Jointly with European partners, either in the UK or elsewhere;

    iii. Jointly with other global partners (such as the United States), either in the UK or elsewhere.

  33.  The European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) has played a major role in developing a roadmap of research facilities of interest to European states. Set up in 2002, ESFRI is a group of senior science administrators from across Europe who advise national governments and the European Commission on infrastructure needs.

  34.  ESFRI released its first roadmap in 2006. On 9 December 2008, ESFRI released an updated roadmap of 44 projects. The construction cost for all 44 projects over the next 12 years would be about €18 billion. The EU's Seventh Framework research programme allocates just €1.7 billion to such costs.

  35.  A substantial fraction of the ESFRI Roadmap facilities are of interest to UK researchers and therefore appear in the RCUK Large Facilities Roadmap, either as potential future facilities that might be constructed in the UK with international collaboration, or as overseas facilities to which access for UK researchers is desirable.

  36.  Despite the ESFRI roadmap, current arrangements concentrate attention on availability of capital funding to build facilities, but again there are significant weaknesses in assessing their ongoing costs, and the impact (normally in future spending review periods) of meeting those costs on the balance of research council funded activities. At prioritisation, estimates of costs and assessments of benefits are preliminary, yet priorities are not reviewed if costs or benefits are significantly revised as business cases are prepared.


  37.  By exploring different funding structures STFC could be provided with enhanced flexibility to extract the maximum benefit for the UK from its research programmes to drive forward UK priorities and to leverage external funding.

38.  One possibility would be to provide guaranteed baseline funding for effective exploitation and operation of central facilities allocated alongside capital funding. This will allow a clearer case to be made of the requirement for, and impact of, large scale infrastructure investments. Similarly, early-stage R&D to enable new facilities and national science/technology programmes must be integrated into this approach. Such long term forward-looking planning will ensure best use is made of the capital investment.

  39.  A similar long-term approach should be adopted for technology and science programmes that underpin strategic developments (for example in materials, space and particle physics), and for the exploitation of international subscriptions. Solutions can lie within the research councils, in the HEIs, and/or in specialist entities such as the Cockcroft Institute for Accelerator Science. Of course, for both the programmes and facilities this long-term perspective needs to be fully coordinated and balanced with a substantive ongoing ability to explore innovative new ideas via responsive-mode funding from STFC and other funding agencies.

  40.  STFC would welcome the consideration of a revised policy model for through-life resourcing of large research facilities and commitments in which funding arrangements match the long-term strategic nature of our programmes.

January 2009

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